The round of protest rallies organized by trade union centres and civil society groups kicked off in Lagos yesterday. Many other rallies are planned for other regions of Nigeria and the grand finale is programmed to take place in Abuja, the capital. These rallies are a direct response of the working class to the pro-IMF/World Bank agenda of the Obasanjo regime. He recently ordered the increase in the price of fuel from 50 Naira to 65 Naira, this is the 9th time Obasanjo has done this since he came to power in 1999.
Unfortunately, the labour bureaucracy ensured that the rank and file workers were not involved in the process of preparation of the rallies, as was evident at the 5th September 5th meeting. This was the meeting that planned the protest rallies. At that meeting the labour bureaucracy and the NGOs were the major constituents, the rank and file workers being absent. Without the presence of the workers that meeting was easily able to declare that a general strike would not be too effective in forcing Obasanjo to listen to the cry of the people. As if any general strike without a bold and clear programme can ever achieve anything!
This meeting advocated a change of tactics. The idea of calling a general strike was rejected. There have already been up to five general strikes since 2000, but due to the role of the leadership at best these achieved partial victories. Instead of analysing the weakness of the leadership and the lack of a clear fighting programme, the idea presented was one of a more “potent and militant” tactic of mass street protests and rallies. As if rallies alone, without the involvement of the rank and file workers, can ever achieve anything!
However, there were some workers present at the meeting. And the pressure on the labour bureaucracy from the rank and file workers was glaringly evident at this meeting; you could read the fear of the unknown in the eyes of the labour leaders present. They were practically begging the Civil Society groups to bail them out of the present confused state the agents of capitalism has pushed them into.
In spite of the shortcomings of the labour leadership, this meeting did mark a very significant turning point in the history of the Nigerian labour movement in, especially in this recent period of “civilian rule”. The labour leaders were forced to shift to the left, at least in words. They unanimously called for the end to the privatisation and commercialisation of the public utilities. They demanded an end to the neo-liberal economic policies of the regime and, most importantly, an end to the regime of these agents of capitalism and the beginning of the coming to power of the Nigerian working class. They all unanimously agreed that the struggle is political and had already transcended the narrow economic demands; this is the Permanent Revolution in practice!
These demands given expression by the leaders, filtered down to the mass of workers behind the backs of the labour bureaucracy and they spread like wildfire. Ordinary working people grabbed them and built up magnificent hopes around them. Even though the union leaders did nothing to mobilise the masses, it is the misery of capitalism that has forced people onto the streets. The misery of their everyday lives is enough to mobilise them.
An education for their children is now beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians, what little there was of healthcare has finally collapsed, the feeling of insecurity has reached unheard of heights, 150,000 civil servant are now being retrenched, over 51,000 railway workers sacked without benefit, 20,000 maritime workers are waiting for their letters of dismissal to be served and the Nigerian Railways have been liquidated with thousands of workers now jobless. All this is in addition to the over 30 million unemployed Nigerians already roaming the street. It was these conditions of the people that mobilised them behind the labour unions.
Yesterday’s rally in Lagos scared even the organizers. The Labour Leaders had not asked the workers to stay away from work to participate in the rally, and yet the workers turned out in huge numbers to demonstrate their support for an end to the Obasanjo regime and to encourage the Labour leaders to take power.
We, the Marxists of the Workers’ Alternative, produced a special broadsheet for the day [published yesterday on this web site]. We sold out of all the copies we had, 974 copies in all. This completely exhausted all the copies produced; if we had gone to the rally with 10,000 copies, just as one comrade rightly observed, we would have sold everything as well. People were hungry for information and desperately needed clarification on burning issues.
I personally experienced an interesting scenario, I was agitating in the midst of a gathered crowd and one policeman was eavesdropping. When I finished and left this crowd, he secretly approached me and begged me to follow him to one hidden corner where his colleagues were, so that I could talk to them without their officers seeing us. I followed him and met about six policemen under the tree. I talked about the possibility of labour taking power and answered some of their questions. At the end of the day they bought five copies of our papers and thanked me warmly for enlightening them.
All the policemen deployed to monitor the rally were simply following us and you could read in their eyes that they were fully with us physically and in spirit. There was even clear evidence that many military personnel had quickly rushed into the barracks to change their uniform to mufti and had joined the rally in large numbers.
We all converged at Ikeja, the capital of Lagos State, where Oshiomole (Nigerian Labour Congress leader), Professor Wole Soyinka and labour/civil society leaders addressed the gathering. Those that were not wearing red regalia were very few. Red signified revolution according to one worker in the gathering. He said he did not mind buying red cloth just for this occasion. You could hear the continuous shouting of “Revolution Now!” echoing in your ears.
Even the liberals that had been called on to speak could not spout the usual rubbish that we know them for. They feared the crowd and immediately became “revolutionary” as well. They too denounced the IMF and World Bank, and demanded an end to the regime. Like chameleons, they can change their colour from one moment to the next. They can use their mouths to say anything and then swallow it again at a critical moment.
Yesterday’s rally in Lagos marked the beginning of a round of seven rallies to be held in six regions around the country, with a final one in Abuja. The message, however, is already quite clear: Workers’ Power Now, End Privatisation, Free Education/Health and to start with Obasanjo must GO!
All these demands can be met, and will be met, if the labour leaders consistently, boldly and persistently put these demands before millions of working Nigerians and poor who are already yearning for ideas, for a solution and for better future.